Over the last few years, we’ve seen an insurgence of biopics depicting some of hip-hop’s biggest names including NWA with Straight Outta Compton and Notorious about The Notorious B.I.G. It was only a matter of time before we got a film showcasing the life and career of hip-hop icon, Tupac Shakur. On November 11, 2016, we will finally get that film, All Eyez on Me.
All Eyez on Me focuses on Pac’s career all the way to the fatal drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996 that ended his life. The film will not only provide insight on Tupac, but many of his Death Row labelmates and friends. No one is more connected to Tupac and Death Row than co-founder and former CEO of the label, Suge Knight.
I recently got the chance to speak to the actor who plays Suge Knight in All Eyez on Me, Dominic L. Santana. Dominic was able to elaborate on what being in the film has meant to him, unique things about the film’s production, things to look forward to, and much more.
For those who aren’t too familiar with you, how’d you get into the acting and entertainment field? I also saw online that you not only act, but you also do a little bit of music, and you’re also a business owner. You do screenwriting, having written a film that was bought and produced by Swirl Films known as Mr. Right (2015).
I started out in Wilmington, NC. I took theater arts in high school because I’ve always been interested in it. I actually started pursuing the business when I moved to Wilmington, NC. At the time it had a bustling film community and really good incentives. At least a third of the movies that were out were being filmed in Wilmington or somewhere in North Carolina, which is where I am from. I’m originally from Fayetteville, NC. When I got down to Wilmington, I just started doing some independent shows with a group of performer and what not; plays and musicals, but they mixed it up with hip hop, rock and all kinds of other stuff. At the time I was also a recording artist in hip hop music and I still do it. Originally that’s what I started with and I was signed to a few labels, but nothing really materialized that we both could agree on. I also started pursuing film as well since I was in a film town. I did this little movie I got casted in called 20 Funerals (2004).
A friend of mine called me saying, “Hey man, I’m down here at Spring Jams. They’re casting for this movie and they need a big dude. Can you get down here in like twenty minutes?” I was like, “Hell yeah; I’ll get down there.” So I got down there and when they saw me, I had the role. It was a little cheap movie and they needed a big guy to be a doorman. So I read the lines and they were like, “Perfect”. So they casted me for that. I actually did that for free. I did a couple of free movies in the beginning and I was doing extra work like being on shows like One Tree Hill and others. Films like Black Knight taught me how the business worked and how the filming process went.
Basically I was studying while I was on set and networking. I did that first film with a company called Swirl Films with Eric Tomosunas. From there, he and I also developed a friendship. That was his first movie as a producer and my first movie as an actor. I like I said, It was a little movie, it didn’t really do much, but it was fun. He went on to do more movies, so he continued to cast me in a lead role in the next one or one of the leads; Dead Heist (2007). Over the years we just kept working together. Love for Sale (2008) I think broke a BET record. So just continuing on from that, I branched out and got an agent. I finally got to go on real auditions and started booking roles. From there I just continued to just keep pushing.
Speaking of roles, your name is going to blow up relatively soon for your portrayal of Suge Knight in All Eyez on Me (2016). How did you hear about the role and get involved with that project?
My agent at the time, he actually submitted me. The company behind the film sent out to the agencies what they were looking for, and my agent saw that so he submitted me for the role of Suge Knight. Of course, my complexion, my appearance, and size made me one of the main ones they wanted to see. So I got the call for the audition, and I did a taped audition in North Carolina with the help of my friend Jason Beacham, he’s a videographer that helped me film it and send off. We sent it, and then they hit me for a callback, but with a call back you actually have to go to where they are. I had a call back with the producer, casting director and director. So I flew down there a couple of days later. I had a bunch of travel issues, delayed flights for hours. So I ended up like four hours late. By that point, I got to downtown Atlanta and went to Winsome Sinclair’s office, WSA Casting. They told me that she and her partner had just left, and the director had been gone. So it was kind of already too late. So I told them, “Look, I have flown all this way and spent all this money, so someone is at least going to film me.” So the guy was like, “Alright”.
He left the room for about fifteen minutes, came back and said, “Actually, Winsome hadn’t left the premises yet so when I told her you were here, they came back in. So we’re already for you.” So I went in there, but at that time I had a fever. I was getting sick. So I went in there and did my thing. I did the best I could do, and I guess they liked it because they gave me another callback. This time, the director really wanted to see me face to face. The director flew in a couple of days later, so I had to fly back down to Atlanta and do it again for so more producers and the director. That went pretty well and about two weeks went by when I got a call that there was a director change and the new director also wanted to see me face to face.
I had to fly back down again. This time, it was director Benny Boom. I got in there, read for the role again and pretty much did the same thing I did before. They enjoyed it. At the time, Demetrius (who plays Tupac) was already in town as he was already being prepped. I guess they liked it enough to where Boom said, “Hey, go to the hotel. Get Demetrius and bring him back here as quickly as you can”.
So they asked me to stick around, and they brought Demetrius to the production office. They put us with Angela Gibbs, who is his acting coach. An excellent acting coach. She was already working with him, so they put us together with her; helping us bond really quick because that was our first time meeting ever. We worked on some exercises as we hit it off pretty quickly. The chemistry was there right on the spot which showed when we went back to read some scenes together. They wanted to see how he and I interacted because Pac and Suge had a strong relationship. They wanted that comradery to play out on screen. So that was one of the things. It didn’t just do you have the talent, did you have the look, but he and I also had to have the chemistry for me to get the role. So we went in there, and we smashed it. Even after we left the room, Demetrius looked at me like, “You got it”.
So about three weeks went by of hearing nothing, and I started feeling like maybe I didn’t get it. Then my agent finally gave me a call, and he was like, “Congratulations, they’ve cast you for the role of Suge Knight”. That was huge for me, and that’s how we’ve gotten to this point.
Did you do any prep work or anything special for the different auditions that you went to as far research on Suge Knight to get into character? Maybe the four or five auditions that you went on, ha.
Of course. Even for the auditions, I studied up on Suge so I could at least be close to his mannerisms. How he talks, his voice fluctuations, facial expressions and even standing like him. Holding my head, the way he holds his head when he’s standing. I did the audition, and once I got the role, I really dug in even deeper. I mostly studied interviews, as I was already familiar with Suge being a huge fan of Pac and Death Row. I was out west when Death Row was in its prime. That was all anyone ever talked about, “Death Row or people on Death Row”. I was already familiar with him so mainly I just wanted to get his essence down pat; walking and talking like him. Saying things that he might say and have the look down. So I just dug deeper trying to find interviews that were rarely seen, or you might not know about. Or at least that I had never seen. So I found a lot of those and a lot of information like that. I especially watched a lot of behind the scenes things where he and Pac are clowning around or talking. How they’re interacting with other people together, even when they aren’t talking to each other.
Once I got on set, there were a lot of people who really knew Suge Knight and Tupac around that era and still know Suge to this day, especially the lead producer. I was fortunate enough to able to ask questions like, “Hey, does this feel weird in the script? Is this something that Suge would say?”They would tell me, “Suge would never say something like that.” I could even ask in a certain scene, “How would Suge respond? What’s something he would say around you?” They’d tell me, and I would use that stuff. I didn’t want people to watch the movie saying, “He did a great Suge Knight” and they don’t even really know anything about Suge. I wanted not only them to be impressed, but people who actually know Suge Knight to say, “Wow, that dude really studied because that’s Suge; that’s something Suge would say or do.” Like, little-known fact: Suge has a pinched nerve or something in his back that causes one of his shoulders to jerk on its own.
That’s something I hadn’t even noticed. It was actually Daz Dillinger who pointed it out to me while we were on set. He showed me an interview and stated, “You see his shoulder twitching? It’s always twitching, especially when he got mad”. So we laughed about it, but it was just that one little nuance that was something I could add that most people might not even catch because he only did ever so slightly. Daz even mentioned people would look for that twitch to see if I really went that deep. Just things like that I added in.
Throughout the movie, I roll with these two guys play their roles named Sean Baker and Eastwood. Eastwood was actually there with Death Row, definitely near the end. He was a youngster, but definitely around Suge. He spent a lot of time with Suge. So he was around me in most of the scenes that I did as those guys roll with me everywhere in the whole movie. I could actually look to Eastwood and ask him a thing about Suge. He was like my Suge Knight consultant so-to-speak, ha, as he was with me all the time. I was fortunate enough to have people I could ask questions and make sure what I was reading off on the script was accurate or if it was inaccurate and fix it.
With so many biopics that have been released over the last few years and lots of different actors playing many of the same roles, whether it’s Straight Outta Compton or Notorious, is there any concern for All Eyes of Me to live up to the hype?
I would say there’s a lot of expectations. I can tell you that all of us as far as the cast, crew, producers, directors and the company behind the film had more expectations for ourselves than the fans probably have for it. As much as the fans have their expectations, we probably have twice as much of that for ourselves. We all took it super seriously. It was a lot of love for Pac. Everyone out there; black, white, Hispanic, Asian all knew who Pac was. They could tell you their favorite Tupac song. Everyone was there for the love of Pac. Hell, half the crew left other gigs because they wanted their name attached to the Tupac biopic. As hardcore fans, they wanted to be able to say, “I was there. I, at least, had a part in it”. I wouldn’t call it fear, because one thing I can say is that the production company was very hard on whoever they put in.
Everyone had to jump through a bunch of hoops to get the roles that we got. Everyone was handpicked, and they put us through everything that they could put us through to make sure that we were the right people for the job. So when we started filming, everyone already knew they had to fight for their position. Fear would be more of not knowing how well it will perform against those movies that came before us. So I call it more of expectations.
Straight Outta Compton was great. Notorious was great. This movie I know will probably do twice, maybe three times as well as those movies because it’s Tupac. Not so much because it’s so much better, but for the simple fact they came before us. They kind of set the stage that helped opened those gates even wider to what we’ve now done. What I do know is that this movie will set a new bar, but it’s not because we’re better than everybody, but just because collectively, you add in what Straight Outta Compton did, what Notorious did. Then add in that this is the story of Tupac and everything that came before us really set the stage for this grand finale sort of speak.
All Eyez On Me teaser trailer:
What has it meant to you to have your name attached to this film and to be a part of something that will hopefully be outstanding?
Before this movie as a true fan of Tupac, Snoop and all those guys from the mid-90s West Coast hip-hop rise, it meant a lot to me. Especially with it being a Tupac biopic. I’m one of those people, who for years has been asking, “When are they making a Tupac story?” Nothing against those guys because I did love that movie as well, but when Straight Outta Compton came out, I was like, “Wait a second. They had done the NWA story before they did the Tupac story?” So we done had Biggie first, now we have NWA and still no Tupac. Being a fan and waiting on the movie like millions of other people around the world, I was hoping for it. Let alone it never even dawned on me that I could play Suge Knight. Never even thought I’d have any hand in it.
So only be in it, but to be a part of it as one of the co-stars to set my own mark on the film is pretty amazing. It was surreal. The whole time, I was a kid in a candy shop. I love film, so I was spending anywhere from eight to twelve hours a day on the film set. Plus, half the time, I’m listening to Pac all day. Just reliving some of these moments that Pac and Suge have, I’m like, “Wow”. This movie covers a lot. They didn’t spend a lot of time wasting time with things that people already know. It’s behind the scenes stuff of things that you already knew or behind the scenes of things that you never even knew about the life of Tupac Shakur.
I was getting a front row seat to information. As a Tupac fan, I thought I knew most or all of the stories. I realized I know probably only a third. One of my favorite parts was sitting with guys like The Outlawz, some of the Dogg Pound guys and people from Death Row as they told stories when we weren’t filming. Stories about the old days.
Whatever scene we were doing, they could really elaborate on what happened. What they were doing and what was really going on. That, to me, was really one my favorite parts of getting to hear these stories and to learn things that I never even knew took place. Like I said a million times before, I would have played a waiter in the movie because as a fan, I would have done that. If that’s all I could have gotten in this movie, I would have been happy with that. As long as I could say I was in the Tupac biopic. So to get the role of Suge Knight and to be this involved, it was insane. This will be one of my most favorite projects ever, no matter what I do even if it’s going to win Oscars for other films. This will be the film I refer back to when we talk about favorites.
You touched on my next question a little bit, mentioning they’re trying to bring stuff that people aren’t aware of as opposed to the same generic stuff. Is there anything unknown that is going to happen in the film that you can share with us?
There’s so much, but there’s also so much that I can’t share. One thing that I will say that people have already kind of gotten a notion about is Afeni Shakur. God rest her soul. A lot of people including myself didn’t really know as much about Afeni. It has been from what they heard in songs, saw and maybe a little bit of media covering Afeni. You get to see Afeni’s interaction with Tupac from a young age going into adulthood. You get to see more of who she was as a person, her battle with some things and how she overcame those battles while regaining who she was as a person. You get to see what Tupac really came from, their interaction, and their story. I always wondered why Tupac said, “Even as a crack fiend, mama. You always was a black queen, mama”. If you’re really into lyrics like I am, you sit and ponder, “He could have left that out, why was it important for him to mention that?”
That’s something you rarely hear someone say about their mama, “Even as a crack fiend. You always was a black queen.” Being a part of this movie and when the fans go to see it, you get to see what he meant by that. Like I said, she had a battle, and you get to see what caused it. You get to see how powerful she was, how strong she was and how big she was for fighting for equal rights for people. Just the effect and the backlash she had to deal with for being that type of person. Being involved with the Panthers and the tactics that were used to dismantle them. You get to see how she was one of the people caught in that wave, and how it took her down a dark road that she was able to climb out of. You get to see her return to that essence of “black queen” that he was talking about. Even that story in itself and seeing those things gives you a huge look into what made Tupac into Tupac and what he was becoming.
That’s one of the things I can touch on. A lot of the other things will just give away too much.
Just have to go out and see the movie to get it all?
Yeah, ha. I hate to be one of those cliché guys, but you have to go out and see the movie. I do want to add; I’ve seen mostly positive feedback. This thing is becoming a movement around the whole world. I have seen a couple of the eggheads complain about, “There’re so many pictures online. So much is being put out about the movie. This and that.” The funny thing they don’t understand about it is that from a business standpoint, those pictures and scenarios really help develop a strong buzz long before advertising.
The true fans were begging for anything they could see about the Tupac story to satisfy them, as well. I will say, even with all the pictures that you have seen out from the set, they aren’t about the storyline. It was really hard to control. The producers fought as hard as they could to deter crew and extras from taking pictures on set and posting things. For the fact that it’s the Tupac story, people were sneaking pictures and videos. Even with all the pictures out there, it still doesn’t cover a 20th of what’s in this movie. What people think they know, you’ll find out when you see the movie. It will make you say “Wow, I had no clue at all.”
I appreciate the time. It’s great learning about the his highly-anticipated film, especially with you being so involved. I’m definitely excited to see the actual film.
How can people stay connected with you and the other projects that you have going on?
You can find me @OfficialDomSantana on IG and Dominic L Santana on Facebook.